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Sailing the Macareo River and
exploring the Jungles of South America

by Chrissi

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Ten miles south of Trinidad lies the virtually unexplored jungles and rivers of the Orinoco Delta. If you depend on your shore-side conveniences, like stores, restaurants, gas stations, if you cant live without television, air conditioning and ice, and if you are afraid of the unknown, unexpected and dangerous, then STAY HOME!!! But if you want to step into another realm of existence, where traders carry shotguns, where Indians hunt with blowguns, bows and arrows, where the water is teaming with deadly predators, then maybe you want to sail the rivers of Venezuela.

We left the quiet serenity of Scotland Bay on a steamy Friday morning, and set sail for this unique and unusual destination. The sail south took us past numerous oil drilling platforms and fleets of shrimp boats festooned with pelicans. A hungry kingfish was kind enough to bite my pink plastic lure, and anchored off Icacos Point, the southwest tip of Trinidad, we feasted on his tasty white flesh. The anchorage there was terrible, with the swell coming from the south and causing a rolly and uncomfortable night. In anything other than a multi-hull, it would have been an impossible anchorage.

Early the next morning we hoisted the sails again and headed across the Serpents Mouth to the Macareo River. The water looked like murky chocolate milk, and reading the depth by the color of the water was hopeless. With the aid of our GPS and a previous explorer's waypoints, we crept in slowly using our depth sounder, and although we never found the deep water channel, we managed to get into the river without running aground.

We anchored downwind of a small mid-stream island where the smell of bird guano was strong, and the mosquitos were ravenous. We sealed ourselves inside the screen cockpit enclosure that I had just completed the night before departing Trinidad, and settled in for a most spectacular evening of feathered entertainment. Flying overhead, floating on the river and roosting in the trees were thousands of pelicans and frigates, hundreds of egrets and herons, and most stunning of all, hundreds of scarlet ibis, their brilliant red color a bizarre contrast to the muddy brown water and darkening evening sky.

Seven miles from the mouth of the river, on the west bank, is Macareo Village. There's about twenty-five huts constructed of lashed together wood poles for the floors, and overlapping palm fronds for the roofs. There are no walls, and you can see the hammocks and other personal articles hanging from the roof supports. The huts are built up on stilts along the waterfront, and to pass from one hut to the next, you must walk along a narrow pole, using a rope for a hand-hold. This is one of the more populated villages, and a little different from the other villages further up river. The Amoco oil company has established a base of operations here, and have provided a school a small medical clinic.

We motored along slowly and were greeted by waving children swarming out of the schoolhouse. We dropped the anchor in front of a long row of thatched huts. The villagers quickly dropped what they were doing, hurried to their canoes, and within minutes we were surrounded by a large fleet of pirogues and canoes filled with people waving hand-woven baskets and strings of colorful glass beads.

"Cambio! Cambio!" they all shouted, wanting to trade for clothing, fabric, fishing hooks and numerous other necessities. We had been forewarned to bring plenty of trading goods, but I quickly extinguished my supply of candy, and after a few minutes of swapping colorful cloth and school supplies, I had to close the store, lest we run out of trade goods at our first village. The Indians soon left us and went back to their daily chores. Señor Collins, an English speaking Amerindian came out to the boat once the villagers had left. We invited him aboard for a beer, and he gave us some local information about the nice places to explore and the wildlife in the area. He also told us of the dangers on the river; thieves, bandits, murderous pirates, piranha, dengue, malaria, yellow fever and cholera. If you ever come through this way, be sure to look him up.

There are so many small caños leading off the main river, and so many small villages, I can't describe all that we saw and everywhere we explored, but there are some very memorable experiences. One night we anchored mid-stream in a narrow caño, thick jungle growth close in on both banks, and as the sky darkened that night, the jungle symphony began. Hoots and howls, gulps and growls, honking, whistling, screeching and croaking. What a racket! One night in St. Martin, Jack and I were hanging around the boat amusing ourselves by booting up his encyclopedia software, and we listened to the interactive jungle sounds, laughing at the noises coming out of the computer. Now here we were, in real life, surrounded by a jungle wildlife concert at full volume. Awesome!

One afternoon, while exploring a very constricted caño, we found ourselves so fascinated by the jungle that in spite of the shrinking width of the river we kept going, scraping past overhanging trees and squeezing between rafts of hyacinth, until we just couldn't get all twenty-seven feet of Naga's beam any further forward. A little belatedly, we decided it was time to turn around, and of course we got stuck. Trees were catching in the rigging, water plants fouling the outboard prop, seed pods and ants falling like rain all over the deck, and me up forward, grabbing at thick branches, trying to push us off, praying there weren't any snakes on the limbs. We managed to get ourselves free and turned around, and while laughing about it and sweeping branches and spiders off the deck, we ran into a big overhanging tree, and got ourselves tangled up even worse than before. This called for some serious action on my part, so I went down below, grabbed our brand new machete, and prepared to do battle with the bush. We had just purchased the machete in a Port of Spain hardware store, and brought it to a machine shop to have a razor edge put on it. I made a beautiful leather sheath for it, and we had dreams of trekking through the bush wacking at any unruly undergrowth that got in our way. Now we wouldn't have to open coconuts with the hack-saw anymore, we could do it like real South Americans. Yeah, right. So there I am, hacking away at this five inch thick tree branch, trying to free the rigging, and I thought I was making progress, even though the slices in the branch were spread out over a foot. Whack, whack, whack, I just couldn't seem to hit the same place twice. Here comes Jack, to show me how its done, He takes the machete away from my incompetent hands, takes one swing at the branch, and PLOP! There goes the machete, overboard.

Trading with the Wareo Indians was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Some of the things they offered in trade were bound for the trash can, but we weren't trading because we wanted what they had. We were trading because we had what they needed, and also because it's lots of fun making people smile. The contrast between the Wareo and western civilization is so vast, it makes me feel very spoiled and pampered. All the Indians we met had holey and threadbare clothes, and such a simple existence, it's difficult to imagine myself living in this manner. Their diet consists mainly of fish and roots. There's not really an abundance of fresh fruit growing in the jungle. They have to trade for things like flour and rice, needles and thread, fishing hooks, and twine to make nets. The Wareo make beautiful woven baskets, awful wood carvings, cheap glass and plastic beaded necklaces, and carelessly woven hammocks. This is what they trade with the few "tourists" who come to visit. They catch river fish, piranha and catfish-like creatures to trade with the professional traders who run up and down the rivers in their high speed pirogues, but basically they are fishermen, hunters and gatherers.

The sound of an outboard engine can be heard for miles, and as soon as the sound of ours was heard, the Indians would drop what they were doing, grab their baskets and baubles, and dash out in their dugout canoes to intercept us. Many times we were able to sneak up on them, silently gliding along under sail. They don't understand that under sail, we sometimes had to tack or jibe, zig zagging across the wind to go forward. They would frantically call out our arrival, run to the canoes, then paddle madly back and forth, seemingly frustrated in their attempts to catch us. We always stopped to trade, drifting down river with the current, and when our commerce was completed we often would tow the canoes behind us and return them to their village.

There's lots of tiny villages along the rivers, and we were running low on all the trade things we had brought along. But we just couldn't say no to these friendly people, so we gave away all our soap, our spare toothpaste, my vitamins, all but one of my sarongs. We gave them our bed sheets, our towels, and all the sugar, rice, dried beans and flour aboard. Jack passed along several t-shirts and a very expensive dress shirt, his toothbrush, all our pens and pencils. The Indians even wanted our trash! Several times throughout our trip we were asked for the plastic bags tied to the stern. we happily parted with them, sure that the Wareo would find a good use for most of what we considered garbage.

There were plenty of times when the river was wide enough and the wind was blowing, and we were able to sail, but on most of the narrow side caños, the wind was blocked by high jungle growth, and we had to run the outboard. We were running out of gasoline, but didn't want to cut the trip short for lack of fossil fuel. We asked at several villages, and were told the nearest place was the town of Tucupita. That was nearly ninety miles further south, out of our fuel range, and the river passage was unaccessible to anything other than pirogues and canoes. One morning, anchored in front of a small village where we had spent the night, our new Indian friends came out to smoke Jack's cigarettes and say goodbye to us. When a pirogue full of Venezuelan traders passed nearby, our new friends waved them down, and we were able to buy thirty litres of gas. We offered 5000 Bolivars, a little over $7 US, and I think we paid too much, but the traders happily accepted, and we made some more new friends. These were the kind of guys you wanted as friends, not enemies, their rifles laid carelessly in full view in the bottom of the boat, a hard weathered look to their faces, hands, bodies, a subtle air of danger in the way they carried themselves. That same day, a little further along the river, we stopped in the village of La Pela, and were able to get twenty more litres of gas from Sito, a friend of Senor Collins. Again, we overpaid, but we were happy to have our fuel stash topped off now, and continue with this fascinating adventure.

. Two months ago, back in Trinidad, we bought a spinnaker from a fellow cruiser. It is a brand new, never been used single luff spinnaker, joyfully colored orange, yellow and red. We hadn't had the chance to fly it yet, but thought it would be great fun to sail with it here in the jungle. Whump! It went up, filled with wind, and gracefully carried us along through the twisting and curving turns in the river. Look at we! Look at we! Flying along as colorful as the birds, proud and laughing at the incredible sight we must have made. All this splendor, but there was nobody to show off to. We followed this caño for two days, but saw nobody. No Indians, no canoes, no villages. The reason we didn't pass any villages on this caño is because it was a dead end, blocked by rafts of hyacinth.(This hyacinth is the same water plant that continually tried to foul the prop, block our passage, and drift down on us in clumps so large it caused us to drag anchor one night. It's a beautiful flowering plant we have come to despise considerably.)

Lack of humanity is not such a bad thing, we enjoyed the solitude and the wildlife. We heard (but never saw) howler monkeys. We saw huge pink river dolphin, who look and act nothing like their ocean-going relatives. We saw a skinny black and green snake slithering in the water next to Naga, looking for a way to climb aboard and terrify me. We saw blue and gold macaws, black and red pheasants, big brown hawks, green Amazon parrots. So many beautiful birds! Even the insects entertained us, the red, gold and green dragonflies hovering like tiny helicopters, the iridescent blue and black butterflies flittering in the rigging.

We launched the kayak in a small side caño, locked the boat up, and went to do some exploring close and personal. Paddling through a raft of hyacinth, a long stringy piece of river weed fell onto Jack's legs, and thinking it was a snake, he jumped so high I thought he was going to jump out of the kayak. We let our heartbeats return to normal, and slowly made our way under massive vines, shaded by thick green hanging plants, past muddy brown banks pungent with a pleasant wet earth smell. We were both hoping for and dreading a sight of caimans, crocodiles, giant anacondas. We spied a family of otters, who curiously stretched themselves up out of the water for a better look at us, then gave us a sputtering snarl and disappeared beneath the dark water. We were silently paddling along, and we must have startled something BIG, it splashed loudly and violently right next to the kayak, I screamed, Jack jumped up, we nearly flipped the kayak, and both of our hearts stopped beating for a moment. We don't know what it was, but I don't think either of us really wanted to find out

There were so many fascinating things to see here, so many friendly people to meet and trade with, so many different, thrilling and wonderful experiences. We will never forget this remarkable part of the planet, and I know that some day we will return here. I hope it doesn't change too much. Next time, however, we'll bring more things to trade, a better camera, and lots more bug spray. And, perhaps we should get some practice with machete handling, too.


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Sailing Venezuela's Macareo River and in the Jungles of South America.